Monday, February 05, 2007


As I was planning my trip to South America, I thought : how can I make this trip really fun? I could do the Inca Trail - that would be fun. And travelling through Bolivia would be fun too. But what would be really fun would be to dust off my copy of Capital and try and read it.

Capital, of course, has a daunting reputation. Even recent attempts to resuscitate it as a modernist classic, a gothic-style novel, do not make it anymore obviously accessible.

In his introduction to reading Capital, the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser stated that there are two overarching problems in facing up to this work. There is a political difficulty - to understand it, one must be working-class and thus have experienced first-hand the situation and the struggle of which Marx writes, or one must be aligned with the working-class cause. And there is a theoretical difficulty - Capital "deals with the theory of `the capitalist mode of production, the conditions of production and exchange corresponding to that mode` and therefore deals with something 'abstract' (something that cannot be touched with one's hands) ; it is therefore not a book which deals with concrete history or empirical economics, as the 'historians' and 'economists' imagine it ought to do."


The first three chapters (on "Commodities and Money") are indeed difficult. Marx himself was worried about this : if Capital was to be serialised, would his readers have the patience to read through these abstract early posts in order to get to the more concrete, active later chapters?

Althusser suggests missing out this first chunk - lest we fail to understand it and give Capital up as a bad job, or worse to think we understand it and miss Marx`s most fundamental points. "It is not possible in my view," says Althusser, "to begin (and only to begin) to understand Part I without having read and re-read the whole of Volume I from Part II onwards."

Parts II through VI describe how capitalism will always strive to lengthen the working-day whilst simultaneously decreasing wages. As we will see, our concept of a "wage" - arrived at through a fair exchange between the worker and the capitalist - is a bourgeois myth. Labour power is in fact a commodity, just like anything else :

It appears that the capitalist buys their labour with money, and that for money they sell him their labour. But this is merely an illusion. What they actually sell to the capitalist for money is their labour-power. This labour-power the capitalist buys for a day, a week, a month, etc. And after he has bought it, he uses it up by letting the worker labour during the stipulated time. With the same amount of money with which the capitalist has bought their labour-power (for example, with two shillings) he could have bought a certain amount of sugar or of any other commodity. The two shillings with which he bought 20 pounds of sugar is the price of the 20 pounds of sugar. The two shillings with which he bought 12 hours' use of labour-power, is the price of 12 hours' labour. Labour-power, then, is a commodity, no more, no less so than is the sugar. The first is measured by the clock, the other by the scales.

- Karl Marx, "Wage Labour and Capital"

Just as the capitalist can exploit the sugar through any means he chooses, so he can also exploit the labour-power he has bought. Having bought it, the worker`s labour power is his property. According to the laws of capital, he may employ it as he chooses, within the boundaries set by law. But, as Marx says in "The Working Day", labour "differs from the crowd of other commodities, in that its use creates value, and a value greater than its own."


Before we look at Marx`s account of the 19th century working day (Chapter 10 of Capital, which serves as an excellent entry-point to the book), let us imagine a situation. A capitalist owns a factory which buys parts (glass, metal, rubber, plastics, motor-components) and turns them into cars. The capitalist employs 50 workers, who each has his particular role on the assembly-line. Each carries out his role (welding, joining, painting, wiring) for a salary which has been agreed by the capitalist and the worker.

The capitalist buys the parts and the machinery in the factory for a fixed, unnegotiable price. Likewise, the utilities which power his factory, be they water, gas or electricity, are also bought at a fixed price. These forms of capital are constant in their value ; in themselves they do not yield profit (we might question how these commodities accrued their value in the first place - the answer is quickly apparent, as we shall see).

The value of the final product - the completed car - must be more than the values of the individual components and utilities which make it up. Its sum value must exceed that of its parts - the pane of glass, the plastic of the dashboard etc - otherwise the capitalist will not make any profit and he will go bankrupt or be subsumed by a competitor. And of course profit cannot be made from constant, fixed capital, so its source must come from the labour which turned the parts into the final product.

This is the first key to understanding Capital : labour power is the only commodity which produces profit, or "surplus value." It is inevitable, therefore, that the capitalist will want to exploit the labour power which he has bought to make as much profit as possible. The worker, for his part, can only work for a certain period without collapsing in a heap. If s/he works for 18 hours a day, seven days a week, s/he will most likely die before his / her 40th birthday. (One would hope that the working week would allow time for leisure and self-fulfilment - a naive notion indeed...)

To explain how the struggle between capitalist and worker is acted out, Marx splits the working day into two distinct parts. The first part of the day "necessary labour time," defined as the amount of time you must work to reproduce a standard of living compatible with modern life. In other words, the time it takes for you to create value equal to the amount you must spend to sustain your standard of living. Capitalism in the 19th century did not much care if its labourers led happy or fulfilling lives, so long as they were able to (a) purchase enough commodities (food, shelter, medicine) to be able to turn up for work the next day and (b) raise a family, a new generation of workers.

But a worker will not get paid if s/he works his necessary labour time alone ; if he did, where would the capitalist get his profit from? The capitalist wage exchange means that s/he must work a full working day in order to get a wage. The rest of the working day Marx calls "surplus labour time." During this period, the worker will produce value solely for the capitalist ; he will receive no further wage for his efforts. The period of necessary labour time is governed largely by the economics and living standards of the time ; it is pretty much out of the capitalist`s hands. But he can work to extend the period of surplus labour time (and thus the working day as a whole) as much as possible.


"The Working Day" is a good entry point to Capital because it takes one straight to the heart of the matter ; its narrative is as stark and immediate as Henry Mayhew´s London Labour and the London Poor.

The capitalist, having bought the worker´s labour, has legal rights as a purchaser. But the worker also has legal rights, as the seller of a commodity. "There is here, therefore, an antimony," says Marx, "right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence it is that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e. the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e. the working-class."

In 1850, the Factory Act was passed by Parliament under the Whig Government of Lord Russell. It set the working work at 60 hours, stated that for women and children the working week-day should not start before 6am and should not proceed after 6pm, and stipulated that on Saturdays, all work must finish by 6pm. Factory inspectors were employed to uphold the provisions of the Act, but their inspection reports quickly proved that the 10 hour day was a joke :

"`The fraudulent mill-owner begins work a quarter of an hour (sometimes more, sometimes less) before 6am, and leaves off a quarter of an hour (sometimes more, sometimes less) after 6pm. He takes 5 minutes from the beginning and from the end of the half hour nominally allowed for breakfast, and 10 minutes at the beginning and end of the hour nominally allowed for dinner. He works for a quarter of an hour (sometimes more, sometimes less) after 2pm on Saturday. Thus his gain is -

Before 6am - 15 minutes
After 6pm - 15 minutes
At breakfast time - 10 minutes
At dinner time - 20 minutes
Daily total - 60 minutes
Five days - 300 minutes
On Saturday before 6am - 15 minutes
At breakfast time - 10 minutes
After 2pm - 15 minutes
Weekly total - 340 minutes

`The profit to be gained by it (over-working in violation of the Act) appears to be, to many, a greater temptation than they can resist ; they calculate upon the chance of not being found out ; and when they see the small amount of penalty and costs, which those who have been convicted have had to pay, they find that if they should be detected there will still be a considerable balance of gain ...... In cases where the additional time is gained by a multiplication of small thefts in the course of the day, there are insuperable difficulties to the inspectors making out a case.´"

And so, by `nibbling and cribbling´, capitalists ensured that capital`s voracious appetite for profit remained uninhibited by the trivialities of law. Which meant that conditions in industries such as lace, ceramics, paper and millinary remained as tortuous as ever. Health is sacrificed to avarice, so that the life expectancy for workers in these industries, and others, was often as low as 20. With typical invective, Marx describes the death of a milliner, Mary Anne Walkley, aged 20, in London :

"This girl worked, on an average, 16.5 hours, during the season often 30 hours, without a break, whilst her failing labour-power was revived by occasional supplies of sherry, port or coffee. It was just now the height of the season. It was necessary to conjure up in the twinkling of an eye the gorgeous dresses for the noble ladies bidden to the ball in honour of the newly-imported Princess of Wales. Mary Anne Walkley had worked without intermission for 26.5 hours, with 60 other girls, 20 in one room, that only afforded one third of the cubic feet of air required for them. At night, they slept in pairs in one of the stifling holes into which the bedroom was divided by partitions of board. And this was one of the best millinary establishments in London. Mary Anne Walkley fell ill on the Friday, died on Sunday, without, to the astonishment of Madame Elise, having previously completed the work in hand."


For anyone who says, "Ah yes, but this is all a thing of the past, capitalism has suffered its birth-pangs, and is now an altogether more civilised business," I offer two contemporary examples, both of which I have witnessed first hand, which may disprove this notion.

Like most under-funded Departments in the public sector, the Social Services Department where I used to work was facing up last year to a substantial overspend. Managers were asked to come up with efficiency savings (a most despicable euphemism to describe laying people off), the most popular of which was to make home care and residential care workers work longer hours for the same money (I needn´t add that it wasn´t quite phrased like that). Care workers are atrociously paid anyway (the sector relies on the quasi-slavery potential of immigrant labour) and, since they are largely older, female and from minority ethnic communities, they represent the most easily exploitable section of the workforce.

It is also the case that most home carers do not drive. So, one day, I was given a wad of home carers´work schedules and a stopwatch and was asked to time how long it took to walk from one house to the next, and so on. Home carers were each allocated 15 minutes travelling time, and it was firmly suggested to me that I might write a report stating that this allowance was too generous and could be cut. Given that I am a good thirty years younger than many of the staff whose schedules I was analysing, and given that the 15 minutes allocation was only just sufficient for me to walk the distance between two houses, my conclusion was that home carers were being run ragged as it was, without cutting their times further. I think my report was swiftly dispatched to the wastepaper bin, and no doubt managers came up with other scams to screw their most liable and voiceless staff over further. Of course, any notions of the Director of Social Services having her 120k salary cut were met with short shrift.

The second example is a Bolivian one. At an altitude of four and a half thousand metres above sea level, there are few employment options for men and children in the city of Potosi. Most are forced to work in the mines, the conditions in which are truly 19th century. Most miners begin their careers aged 10, and most can expect to die before their 40th birthday. Each day they mine for tin, often using only a hammer and chisel : some days they will be lucky, but on the days when they find no tin, they do not get paid. They are subjected to asbestos, silicon and carbon monoxide fumes ; all day they eat nothing but coca leaves to quell their exhaustion ; and at 25 metres below ground-level, the oxygen in the tortuously narrow mines is minimal. Those smug liberals of a decidedly occidental bent who claim that there is no longer a working-class should occasionally look beyond their own four walls and see how uncivilised capitalism can really be.

But we still return to the theoretical problem that Althusser mentioned. If you are willing to recognise Marx´s account of the working day, you will see that it applies to you, whether you are a 19th century milliner, a Bolivian miner or a British local government employee. The hardships endured by the latter are somewhat different - I really experienced no hardships as such (though Social Services is not the best field to work in if you want fancy business trips to the Seychellles) - but I recognise that, as an employee, as a worker, I was nevertheless being exploited. So, I suppose, was my boss. Maybe even the 120k-a-year Director. What gets in the way of workers recognising that they are the victims of exploitation is a vague but ever-present feeling of guilt, the sense that the worker somehow owes the corporation for having been treated so, well, not-badly. This is created by the performative power of capitalism which I have written about before. I shall, no doubt, return to it again as I delve further into Capital.


Blogger minifig said...

So far so good. I really would appreciate a summarised version of Capital, so keep it up!

7:26 AM  
Blogger Newfred said...

Your post reminds me why Marx is both so brilliant and so deeply flawed. Marx's project is ultimately a descriptive one, and his description is highly perceptive and to the point. To my mind, however, "Marxist" or Marxian alternatives are no real alternatives. What we are dealing are issues of an absolute empirical standard of living. Standards of living, conditions and hours of work, and rates of pay, were improved in the west by collective action within the liberal logics of free trade, freedom of association, freedom of expression and the rule of law. Achievements were made by activity and agitation by groups within civil society, such as trade unions, churches, and guilds.

Exploitation itself is not the problem; we are all being exploited, without exception. Nature is an exploitative place. The problem must therefore ultimately be the struggle to ensure representation and sufficient levels of freedom and autonomy in civil society for the balance of exploitation to be levelled bit by bit. The answers to this are not easily found, but the evidence certainly doesn't support conventional Marxist/socialist government responses.

Marx had real problems understanding exploitation outside the Western nation state, and indeed came up with some pretty dodgy ideas when he tried to deal with productivity in the Middle East and central Asia. Therefore, I think confronted with today's globalising context, Marx would respond in much the same way as he responded in the context of domestic political economies, and therefore in principle the injustices of a global market need no qualitatively different solutions.

11:06 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

I think your argument of collective action improving working conditions within a liberal climate needs a bit more explanation. By coincidence, I was about to write something on that very subject, and will hopefully post it later today.

I have never been at all convinced by the practicality of a Marxist revolution, because Socialist governments cannot fulfil their potential in a Capitalist world. We see, for example, Cuba being cited as an example of how Socialism brings enormous poverty to a country. This poverty is of course largely a result of the collapse of the USSR. On the other hand, in Venezuela and Bolivia socialist countries are ensuring that capital flow remains in the country, thus increasing the GDP of those countries.

The difficulty is that Socialism, unlike Capitalism, is rarely absolute. It is a reaction to something, and as that "something" changes from state from state, so the variety of Socialism changes as well.

But I do not agree that the problem of today´s market is merely a quantitative one. Reformism (e.g. welfare stateism) also failed during the 20th century because it could not be sustained within the burgeoning neo-liberal model. This doesn´t bring us any closer to a solution, but let´s carry on working on it!

5:49 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Isn't it great?? I hope you keep going with it, becasue even if some of the ideas seem a bit old hat these days, the writing itself is amazing. The Working Day is probably one of the best works of political journalism ever written.

Just an aside, did you know that was the London correspondent for several American newspapers and wrote pamphlets and helped with pro-US propaganda for the American Embassy? Abraham Lincoln's Ambassador was held in great disdain by the entire Victorian political establishment, and the States often got very bad press; so Marx, a great fan of all things American, sought to help him raise the image of America in the eyes of the British people.

Ironically, Marx hated Russia, which he thought was an absolute warren of backwardness, feudalism and general evil.

Funny how things worked out, isn't it?

6:24 PM  

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